For Stephen DiMare, crafting a high-end popsicle business wasn’t something he could have predicted.
“My original passion was building a coffee shop,” DiMare, owner of The Hyppo Gourmet Popsicles, explains.
Originally from St. Augustine, Florida – a small, delightfully cute city on the northeast coast of the state, not far south of Jacksonville – DiMare moved to Montana to work in a ski lodge, escaping the Florida heat and learning the hospitality business. It was on his way home for a wedding that DiMare decided to switch career paths and open a popsicle shop.
“I was on a plane and sat next to a complete stranger and we got to chatting,” DiMare says. “I was giving her my elevator pitch on my coffee shop, and she said, ‘You should have popsicles in your coffee shop.’ I was like, ‘That’s really not the vibe I’m going for,’ but the more we got to talking, I was intrigued by it.”
DiMare’s neighbor ultimately suggested he read up on paletas, fresh-fruit Mexican popsicles. For the uninitiated, paletas (which means “little stick” in Spanish) are fruit-based, handmade popsicles, far superior to the packaged, nameless “orange” and “blue” icy pops you often find in American grocery stores.
“By the end of that flight, this multi-year dream of owning a coffee shop [changed into] starting a popsicle shop,” DiMare says. “And I had never even had a gourmet popsicle or made one. I was just like, ‘I love this idea so much. This is what I want to do with my life.’”
DiMare moved back to St. Augustine and discovered an open storefront in the city’s historic district. In this part of town, charming shops are squeezed into buildings from the 18th century, flanked by narrow brick-lined streets and palm trees. It was the perfect place to offer locals and tourists alike a cool, refreshing, portable dessert.
“People love to walk around when they’re eating a popsicle,” DiMare says. “St. Augustine is one of the most charming cities in the entire world: it’s quaint, small, old, and has all this history. And it’s hot. When you combine all those things, and an annual tourist influx – with 7 million people in our downtown every year – it really is the most amazing place to grab a popsicle and walk around the city.”
Although DiMare does not have a formal culinary education, he used his background in the sciences to start testing popsicle recipes and flavor profiles. He discovered that each fruit needs to be processed in a slightly different way: strawberries are simply hulled, while guava and blackberries must be lightly blended and strained because their seeds are too tough to eat directly. Then the fruits are mixed with a drop of organic cane sugar – just enough to overcome a bit of the sweetness that’s lost during the freezing process. The blitzed product is poured into the ridged popsicle molds in a flash-freezing machine, a wooden stick slipped into the fruity concoction, rising up like a stalagmite, at the very last minute. Twenty minutes later, the popsicles emerge from the freezer completely frozen.
“People are so surprised when they try our product and see what a difference it makes when they’re tasting a popsicle that’s made from something fresh compared with something that was previously frozen,” DiMare says. “We are just able to capture a lot more of those little delicate biologics that really allow the flavors to pop.”
Today, The Hyppo offers well over 300 popsicle flavors, ranging from blackberry sweet corn to starfruit basil and mango cheesecake. The popsicles are wonderfully colorful – without the use of the infamous Red 40 dye – streaked in bright pink, sunny yellow and dark purple. Some are even submerged in fast-drying chocolate for a glossy outer shell.
“Everything that Florida makes, we use,” DiMare says. “Our flavors are very rich and flavor-forward, which matches flavor profiles you typically see in very hot places. A big part of our ethos is just understanding where we are and designing the pops for Florida first.”
Even though DiMare certainly never expected he’d be running a popsicle business, he’s found that with popsicles comes a certain kind of nostalgia.
“The whole idea that you have a shop that’s dedicated to this one humble medium that iterates like crazy, that really appeals to people’s sense of whimsy and fun,” he says. “For a lot of people this is a really redemptive experience, to say, ‘Oh wow, here’s something that reminds me of my childhood but appeals to my tastes now.’”